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In conversation with: Will Cary, Chief of Business Strategy and Analytics, Barnes Foundation

As the man who oversees all earned revenue functions at the Barnes Foundation, Will Cary is perhaps better placed than most to speak on the challenges that face museums when the doors close and departments are sent home – just as they did back in March 2020.

But as MuseumNext found when we caught up with Will ahead of this month’s Digital Income Summit, the positive and proactive response of the Barnes Foundation team managed to turn a challenging situation into a remarkable success story. 

Chartered in 1922 by founder Dr Albert C Barnes, the Barnes Foundation has always had a clear mission to advance education and appreciation of the fine arts and horticulture. But in the face of a pandemic, continuing the Foundation’s diverse educational programmes was anything but guaranteed.

For Chief of Business Strategy and Analytics, Will Cary, the lockdown presented some fairly fundamental questions that needed answering in a very short period of time.

“For us, it was challenging just because of the number of on-site programmes we had and simply being a visitor-centred organisation. Up until that point in time, our adult learning had always been delivered in person and face to face.

“So, in that regard, the challenge of pivoting to an online format was substantial and relatively untested. However, it soon became apparent that it was something we had to act quickly.”

Responsible for all earned revenue functions at the Barnes Foundation – including box office admissions, the call centre, special events, group sales, retail, and dining – the immediate halt to virtually all income landed squarely at Will’s door. But in the immediate aftermath of the decision to close venues and implement a stay-at-home-order came into action, Will is quick to credit his audio-visual department and IT department for mobilising swiftly and giving the museum a platform from which to deliver content in a new, digital way.

“They showed us that we had the infrastructure in place to do this and make the move quickly. That meant not only finding a way to deliver services to our learners but also to implement all the operational changes required to support a museum team who now needed to work remotely.”

Thankfully, Will says that teams were able to establish a home working setup almost immediately and set about increasing the online content that was produced and disseminated in order to “try to keep a level of engagement among our audiences through the closure.”

He continues,

“Quite frankly, we thought the closure would be much shorter and we would need a short stop-gap of digital content. We kicked off the ‘Barnes Takeout’ – a short-form video series that we emailed out and posted to YouTube. It was essentially a curator talking about one work of art each time, running for about 10 – 12 minutes.

“As it turned out, the length of the lockdowns forced us to move to a more sustainable model – from a ‘Takeout’ daily, to a couple of times per week and then eventually down to once a week as it became obvious that we needed to run the programme for a prolonged period of time.”

Building on the success and learnings from the engagement-focused format, Will explains that the Barnes team soon began moving classes and public programming online. He says,

“We were trying to increase our output and maintain engagement levels with our constituents while trying to navigate an increasingly uncertain climate that came with the pandemic.”

Whether it was foresight or good fortune, Will says that the institution-wide training on and adoption of Microsoft Teams in late 2019 gave the Barnes Foundation a good grounding in what it would take to both work remotely, collaborate virtually and also deliver programming online:

“So, the thought was there and the infrastructure was in place. It really enabled our teams to head home at closure on the Friday and get working relatively smoothly from home on the Monday. The training we had done in the Fall is really the reason we were able to make that transition so quickly.”

Asked about the ongoing demands on the organisation and the ability to forward plan during those early weeks and months, Will says,

“Our programming really is dictated by the size of our institution. We have enough resources, infrastructure and people with deep expertise and knowledge to generate substantial content for our constituents. But we are not so big that it becomes problematic to make decisions quickly. I think our size was an asset that helped us in this instance.

“Moving fast, I think, is also one of the key contributors to our success. In essence, we were quick to market with our first Takeout less than 2 weeks after we closed our doors.”

Will suggests that within weeks of launching their first forays into online learning, the internal conversations swiftly turned to priorities beyond short-term engagement. As the stay-at-home order showed no sign of lifting, looking at monetisation opportunities and a more sustainable digital model became necessary:

“We were simply giving material away for free to maintain engagement – which was important in the first instance – but then we had to have some challenging conversations about what was sustainable, what was growing audience and what was not.

“I think we knew that if engagement was strong, those opportunities to generate revenue online would inevitably follow. And we could also get a sense of what people wanted from us through experimentation before we moved to a paid format.

“Of course, we were also giving away content in the first instance to our membership base: people who were already making donations to the institution. And so we didn’t necessarily feel a rush to put a paywall in place . . . but we probably knew quite early on that it was coming down the line.”

That discussion only became more challenging when the museum opened its doors in July 2020, of course. With all of the on-site operations running again, it once again became important to drive people back to the building. But, as Will explains, “We also wanted to build on those successes we’d had online – and where we knew there was more experimentation to be done.

“While I think we’ve come a long way and have found a good model for moving forward, those conversations are still always ongoing and we are continually looking to balance our audience and our constituents’ needs.

“We ultimately want to have a substantial number of visitors coming into the building, as we have done for many years. But we also know that there is tremendous opportunity to continue to grow these online functions and have a much larger reach than we can from our physical building.”

One key factor that Will, like many of his colleagues in the museum sector, have found gratifying during the last 12 months, is that through the challenges and the hardship have come some of the most valuable experiences and genuine success stories.

“I have to say that the level of collaboration and energy we’ve shown as a team during this period has made for some of the most satisfying work of my career to date. There’s been an incredibly high degree of alignment, honesty and transparency, which more often than not gets us rowing in the same direction.

“Funnily enough, once we feel like we have our internal alignment and working execution dialled in, the success of output tends to follow.”

While it might seem counter-intuitive, Will suggests that the remote working model and ease of collaboration has been every bit as effective, if not more so, than face-to-face collaboration. He says,

“You’re able to gather the key stakeholders of perhaps 5 – 8 people together efficiently onto a Teams call. And somehow the process is more democratic than ever before. That’s certainly the feedback we’ve had from the team. There is no head of the table; everyone is of the same size on the screen. It’s really worked incredibly well for us.”

So, what of the tangible successes for the Barnes Foundation during this period?

Having had 3,000 students enrol on adult learning since March 2021 from 40 US states and 8 countries, Will and his team have a rock solid proof of concept, which has constituted a significant new revenue stream for the organisation and a clear success in terms of raising the Foundation’s accessibility credentials. Not only that but the remote format has enabled the Barnes Foundation to quadruple the number of scholarships it is now available to offer to adult learners.

“It is important for us to work towards a revenue model that is sustainable for a broad audience, so that revenue serves to support our goal of becoming more inclusive and accessible. What’s most gratifying about the last 12 months is that it has served our mission as an organisation.”

Asked about any pitfalls or mistakes his team have made along the way, he responds,

“I wouldn’t really say that anything we have done over the past year or so has been a mistake. There have certainly been avenues that we have explored and experimented with that we’ve chosen not to pursue. But they’ve all been incredibly valuable as part of the process in helping us to hone what it is that works for our audience.”

And what should we be looking forward to from the Barnes Foundation in the near future?

“We are looking to significantly grow our online content production, dissemination and learning. Part of that entails a big research project we’re excited to undertake in the next year. Following on from that we’re investigating the potential of a full online learning platform, which may even support partnerships and the aggregation of content from other institutions. We’ll also be returning to on-site learning in the Fall, but it is highly likely that we’ll be taking a hybrid approach to education programmes at that time.

More broadly, Will believes that we are only just beginning to tap into the potential of remote adult learning. Over the coming years he believes that museums have the ability to play a central role in growing this field of education:

“I see a lot of potential out there in the market for adult learning in all kinds of different settings. There is the joy of learning art history but also the practical application as it relates to visual literacy, critical thinking, communication and team building in a corporate setting.

“We see an opportunity to work with institutions on content creation and distribution to help people learn soft skills wherever life takes them, both personally and professionally. Museums really have a competitive advantage in terms of assets and expertise; it’s just a matter of developing the appropriate platforms and distribution models.

I feel strongly that this will work best in a collaborative format . . . it’s a conversation I’m keen to have with other institutions and see where it takes us.”

MuseumNext offer online learning for museum professionals striving for engaging, relevant and flexible professional growth content. Learn more about our virtual museum conferences here.

About the author – Tim Deakin

Tim Deakin is a journalist and editorial consultant working with a broad range of online publications.

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